French rail commuters get English skills back on track

REIMS, France (AFP) - "Welcome aboard, ready for the lesson?" the teacher asks three passengers sitting down to their English class in one of the carriages of the 7.43 am commuter train to Paris.

It is not your usual classroom inside this train making the 45-minute trip from the city of Reims, in the heart of France's champagne country.

But the French state railways company SNCF thinks it has found a good solution for time-squeezed commuters who need to brush up on the language of Shakespeare.

The pilot program, aptly named "English on track" service, was launched in September on six routes from the eastern Champagne-Ardenne region, a popular commuter hub for people working in the French capital.

Boarding the train at Reims in the semi-darkness of early morning is Mr Jerome Maillot, a buyer in a Paris firm and already a fan of the scheme.

"I use English all the time in my job and since I get home late, it's difficult for me to fit in lessons. So using the journey to improve my skills is a real time-saver," says the 29-year-old, as he settles down for the lesson held either in first class or another designated space in the train.

As the train races at 300 kilometres an hour through the green countryside, Mr Maillot's teacher - a native English speaker - sticks up papers on the window in lieu of a blackboard.

Each 45-minute lesson prioritises conversation practice around different themes and uses a tablet computer hooked up to a speaker system for listening comprehension exercises.

With such a small group, "it's practically a private lesson", says Mr Maillot, who has signed up for 30 lessons, four times a week, paid for by his employer as part of on-the-job training.

"And since the other students and I have gotten to know each other, we are less scared to speak and are progressing fast," he adds.

Ms Flavie Bleuse, a 24-year-old sales representative, finds the novel scheme an antidote to the boredom of commuting.

"Starting your day by speaking English is very stimulating," she said. "In public transport, you are just waiting for the journey to end."

Many French employees are increasingly required to use English on their jobs.

"Even if the lesson only lasts 45 minutes, practising regularly means you can improve pretty quickly and the sociable aspect of being on the train makes conversation easier," explains Mr Calum MacDougall, the director of the SpeakWrite language institute which provides the training.

For the moment the service is limited, with only one lesson for a group of up to six people offered on each of the six routes. The 30-lesson package, which costs 690 euros (S$1,167), can be taken two, four or even five times a week.

If successful, the program may well be extended, says Mr David Potier, SNCF sales director for the Champagne-Ardenne region.

"We have limited places but if there is strong demand, we will look at adding lessons to the return trains in the evening or offer two lessons at a time on a train" instead of one.

"This is a pilot scheme for the Champagne-Ardenne region that could well be introduced in other regions, and could even offer other languages," Mr Potier says.

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